In June, as festival season takes flight across Canada, the Canada Dance Festival (CDF) kicks off in Ottawa. It makes its way through the throng of activities clamouring for our attention, modestly doing its work in a city that does spring right, thanks to its tree-lined waterways.
I took on the CDF by bike, for the ease of speed when moving from one venue to another. Not that the venues were far apart — the National Arts Centre, a perennial sponsor and co-producer of the festival, and Arts Court Theatre are across the canal from one another, a convenient and scenic seven-minute jaunt. But paired against “regular life,” the CDF was practically a marathon.
And like a large bird taking flight, the festival began somewhat tentatively, with smaller audiences, but began to soar by the end of the week with sold-out events and lively nights at the festival bar. What follows are only my personal highlights.
Day 1, Monday June 9
The festival began, appropriately, with an Indigenous blessing acknowledging our occupation of unceded Anishinaabe land and an honour song. This introduced A Soldier’s Tale, a dance-theatre ode to the emotional repercussions of war on the individuals who do military service and their families by Michael Greyeyes. Drawing together a cast of thirteen performers (including two young Greyeyes) and thirteen behind-the-scenes individuals (a writer, two dramaturges, designers, stage managers, etc.), the work felt overly ambitious in scale. However, it still provided some strong moments of staging and movement: a desperate and drunken dance through a stage filled with antique beer bottles, looking like a graveyard of giant bullets; and a dancer in a mute witness to the aftermath of her own death, which brought another layer to the collective understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Day 2 & 3, Tuesday June 10 & Wednesday June 11
Tuesday and Wednesday each began at 5pm with graduate student shows in two Mixed Program(s) of Short Works. El Tiempo Vuela by Kate Alton and Tell (originally commissioned by Montréal Danse in 1986) by Paul-André Fortier, on students from The School of Toronto Dance Theatre, stood out. My reflex was to search for contemporary dance’s next stars, with competition and comparison built unsatisfactorily into the equation. It occurred to me that, in fact, what will differentiate the dancers at this point, and make or break their futures, is how they work as the piece gets set on them — the parts we can’t see — rather than how they appear onstage.
From one Montréal Danse commission to another: Prismes by Benoît Lachambre, was next on the agenda. Suddenly I was confronted with an audience filled with familiar faces from the pan-Canadian dance community, and the sounds of people greeting each other. The performers mingled with the crowd, discussing perception-altering diagrams with clusters of people. Their candid discussion gradually moved down to the stage and through the sound system as the show “officially” began. Bolts of brightly coloured fabric featured heavily and inventively in the piece, first draped about the dancer as he or she posed in front of a scrim in contrasting colours of neon lushness. The action built slowly but mesmerizingly, with “tricks” of lighting and staging, so pleasurable because they were done without pretension. Sylvain Lafortune donned a hard hat and moved on an impossibly stable metal scaffolding structure, shrugging off his overalls in all his Michelangelesque glory, a seductive and deliciously gay section. Rachel Harris, in a hypnotic study on her rippling torso, teetered between primal and orgasmic. Annik Hamel spazzed out in exaggerated boredom to Lafortune’s speechifying — these are only some of the images that stay with me. It’s eye candy, but certainly not predictable.
At this point, the festival seemed to pick up the pace and fervour. I headed to the benefit event “A Moveable Feast” for a quick glass of wine and delicious gnocchi and cheese. It was in an art gallery in Ottawa City Centre, an odd industrial island adjacent to Little Italy. It also happens to be the building I had taken acting classes in as a youth (Does anyone remember You Can’t Do That on Television?).
It’s also on the way to the trendy west-end Hintonburg neighbourhood, where Final Savage Land, by Sore for Punching You artistic director and choreographer Allison Cummings, was performed in a late-night pop-up venue. I was lucky to get a ticket, as this was a limited-seating, highly intimate, temporarily converted performance space where audience members sat in chairs along two walls, a stone’s throw from each other. The piece had Depression-era nostalgia to it, echoed in the vintage clothing and the bricolage stage design, which included twisted wire cages surrounding clusters of dim incandescent lights and the faint scent of rose petals. A couple emerged from the window-front alcove to travel, hand-in-hand in winding pathways in the space between the spectators, emoting their fear, love, trust and destructive dependency, seemingly searching for some kind of redemption. Another pungent smell filled the air as the piece drew to a close (you’ll have to experience it to find out what)… and the night was over for one tired but satisfied festival-goer.
Day 4, Thursday June 12
Jasmine Inns and Marilou Lépine are a tour de force, both performing in all three of the Ottawa Dance Directive’s ‘ODD is Off’ programs at 5pm. I was thrilled to see Ottawa’s own in partnership with the CDF. From there I sped back across the canal to another shared program of two works at the NAC Studio. I had enjoyed the elegant rambling movement of Vancouverite Ziyian Kwan’s idiosyncratic character in the neck to fall previously, and Edmonton-based Tania Alvarado in Hereafter was a discovery.
From independent offerings we moved to a large-scale work by Montréal’s Le Carré des Lombes. In Paradox Mélodie, choreographer Danièle Desnoyers presents a sophisticated production that integrates ten dancers into a soundscore that involves a live harpist. I find that Desnoyers’s work is akin to experimental jazz, a refined esoteric exploration between sound and movement. In this world premiere I could see tremendous promise in a work that still needs some settling in. At 10pm I found myself at the festival bar in ODD headquarters, for an evening hosted by the Canadian Dance Assembly and the CanDance Network. Long live the festival bar!
Day 5, Friday June 13
I caught Danielle Sturk’s film Rachel Browne: A Good Madness the next afternoon. It’s a sensitive portrayal of a complex woman, the founder of Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers. It was a fitting moment, as Browne, sometimes called “The matriarch of modern dance in Canada” died suddenly at the age of seventy-seven while attending the 2012 CDF. Clearly, the film will become an important teaching tool in Canadian dance history, especially for those of us who were not aware of her legacy.
Dancemakers’ loveloss and Corpus’s Machina Nuptialis provided two extremely contrasting performances of work built for audiences “in the round.” The former was an austere and obscure affair that took place in the NAC Studio, while the latter was an outdoor explosion of carnival-esque buffoonery in the lovely Strathcona Park. While their aesthetics were oppositional, both depended on the use of elaborate scenographic design, each suited to their thematic.
Day 6, Saturday June 14
On the final night of the festival, I attended Music Creates Opportunity, a homecoming performance by Yvon “Crazy Smooth” Soglo and his young company Bboyizm. His bboys and bgirls were out in full force, and ready to cheer them on. But for all their recent touring in Atlantic Canada, the piece felt somewhat stilted and unsure of how to position itself vis-à-vis crowd interactions. However, I am excited to watch the progression of this street-to-stage artist, and with him the artists he brings in his wake — in particular the very dynamic Mélissa “Melly Mel” Flérangile.
Finally, the epic and heroic festival closer: The 60 Dancer Project by Tedd Robinson of Ottawa’s 10 Gates Dancing. Graduating dancers who performed earlier on in the week — from the School of Contemporary Dancers in Winnipeg, The School of Toronto Dance Theatre, School of Dance in Ottawa and L’École de danse de Québec — were supplemented by students from the École de danse contemporaine de Montréal and performed in this masterwork of inventiveness. It was a stunning explosion of bodies unified by the creative use of sheets and costuming, props, chorus work and duets, contrasting colours and sticks, all of which was supported by a music-sound score by multi-instrumentalist Charles Quevillon and Magnitude 6, a Montréal-based brass and percussion quintet. It was an historic way to end a fantastic festival, with a production that could only really be imagined and manifested in a space enabled by the Canada Dance Festival and its artistic producer Jeanne Holmes.
Tagged: Contemporary, Festival, ON , Ottawa